American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mount Foresta

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

Mount Foresta

Fred Beckey and Rick Nolting

RICK NOLTING, JOHN RUPLEY, Craig Tillery and I had been for more than two frustrating weeks on the glacier south of Mount Vancouver. We had ski-planed in on June 30, hoping to climb the southernmost of the eastern ridges of Vancouver. The approach to the foot of our ridge had proved to be nearly hopeless. Then bad weather had settled in.

Though we knew little of Mount Foresta, the thought of a major unclimbed peak fifteen miles southeast of Mount Vancouver now gripped our enthusiasm. On our next radio call we inquired how we could be moved to a new base. Foresta rises to more than 11,000 feet above the ice-dotted waters of Disenchantment Bay. Dimly remembered photographs indicated that the mountain had three quite distinct summits of nearly equal height. A study of the topographic map suggested the northeast peak was highest with an altitude of 11,960 feet, but we could not see any contour line higher than 11,200 feet. The southwest peak, the one seen from Yakutat, was shown on the map as the lowest. Kluane Base Camp arranged for a helicopter to move us and secured clearance from customs to make a landing inside Alaska. On the morning of July 16 the unmistakable mechanical sound of the rotors shook us from the midst of preparing breakfast. In the sunshine of a magnificent morning, we broke camp in a frenzy.—Fred Beckey

The last ridge blocking our view of Foresta swept beneath the helicopter and with it all my preconceptions of the route we had planned to take. Terrible-looking icefalls at the mountain’s base, steep-sided ridges; and the southwest peak both visually and by the helicopter’s altimeter was the highest, not the northeast summit! We had little time for a decision. I thought wistfully of the old method of spending leisurely hours at home poring over aerial photos. With characteristic intensity Fred directed my attention to the only feasible approach—a route leading to a peaklet we dubbed the “Helmet” some two miles west of the southwest summit. We landed at 5200 feet and stood dazed by the transition as the helicopter returned for John and Craig.

Still later that same afternoon we headed out in clear but windy weather to begin the route. There were the first signs of a cloud build-up, but we had to try something. I was mildly surprised that my legs still carried me uphill after all the tent-sitting of the previous two weeks.

The route across the lower glacier was fairly easy on snowshoes. We skirted some obvious crevasses and slogged up and over a few little ridges to the west side of the Helmet. Many hundred feet above us a broad bench, the Helmet’s “visor,” offered a seemingly obvious way across the face. But how to get there? Our frantic helicopter reconnaissance had told us this was the way. However, a lower route lay dangerously close to séracs which had swept the area and an upper one crossed a deep moat on a frail bridge. After further hesitation we chose a middle route as steeper but safer. The moat here was filled and no large séracs would threaten us.

Fred climbed a steep 60-foot ice pitch leading out of the moat. A short jog to the left and some moderately steep soft-snow climbing led to a band of gneissic rock, where it was possible to place a solid pin, much to our pleasure since neither flukes nor pickets had been much good up to that point. John and Craig moved up, tied off extra rope and equipment and disappeared into the gloom of a snowstorm as they did the next pitch. We had been too eager to battle with the weather. Fred and I fumbled our way down, left gear tied off at the first pitch and felt our way back to camp. The snow had turned to rain before Craig and John came in, thoroughly soaked but elated that at least we were climbing. Or were we? The rain continued and John and Fred were nearly awash in their tent while we bailed occasionally. The next day it snowed, then rained, then cleared briefly before raining again the following day.

Though still cloudy and warm, five days after our initial foray we tried again. All went well until we were at the bottom of the fixed line. No gear was visible, including our crampons. Avalanching snow had covered the spot; we realized our stupidity as we dodged more wet slush from above. Fortunately everything was dug out in less than an hour. We were relieved although once again heading down in overcast and drizzle.

The doldrums. The mountain was a Sargasso Sea of frozen wetness. Slush avalanches cascaded down the black cliffs across the glacier from our route and another wet day slipped by.

The next day looked good and so off we went. Fred and I shuttled loads while John and Craig continued from their high point of a week ago. There were tangled ropes and cavernous snow problems, but a couple of pitches and more slogging put us on the visor. I led across in a dense muggy fog, tried to ignore recent avalanche debris and kept going. The rest of the icefall offered few problems, the sun was out and at the col we could see far to the south.

Good weather continued the next day as we climbed broad slopes toward the summit ridge. For a time we happily cramponed up hardened, day-old avalanche tracks only to sink in further above. Eventually we reached the ridge, wide and even, rolling easily on to the summit. Fred kept us mindful of the cornices. Telltale crevasse signs—a crusty hole here and there—made us wary despite the smooth terrain. I thought my rope had no slack in it until Fred yelped and vanished. The rope was taut a second later. By John’s watch two hours zipped by as I helped Fred dig out from 40 feet down and prusik up in a tangle of gear. Caution ruled as we all roped together, continued to the summit and marveled that the weather could ever be so good. Mount Fairweather was visible 120 miles southeastward. The snow remained terrible and we bivouacked on the way down after Craig narrowly avoided a ride on an immense slush avalanche.

Nursing our bivouac hangovers the next morning, we found a rock rib which allowed us to avoid the worst of the snow and reach the col. The skies remained clear. Not only were we able to descend the icefall unscathed, but two days later we flew out at least several hours in advance of the next week-long storm.—Rick Nolting

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Icefield Ranges, Southeastern Alaska.

First Ascent: Mount Foresta’s Southwestern Summit, c. 11,200 feet, July 24, 1979 (Fred Beckey, Rick Nolting, John Rupley, Craig Tillery).

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